COMMENT | Tunnel vision on Tech – Reflections on the London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference

Laure Joanny reflects on the illegal wildlife trade events in London, October 2018

Last October, the UK government held an international conference on tackling the illegal wildlife trade (IWT). This was an occasion for the UK government and conservation community to express their enthusiasm for technological solutions to the issue. I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend some of these discussions which provided valuable insights into the field of technology for conservation.

In the run up to the conference, no less than four preparatory workshops gathering conservationists and tech sector representatives were supported by the Foreign Office. At the main event, an hour-long panel was dedicated to “how the Wildtech sector can support the fight against IWT”. Several stalls dotted around the conference venue were also presenting technical tools from thermal cameras to DNA analysis toolkits.

This seems to be a classic two birds with one stone, win-win configuration in the eyes of the government, which involved The Catapult Network in the preparations. This group of not-for profits established by the UK Research and Innovation national funding agency, has the task of supporting the growth of technology applications such as the satellite imagery and artificial intelligence.

Stalls at the IWT Conference venue on 11th October 2018

While there is no denying that machine learning, aerial imagery and networked sensors can generate a wealth of new and valuable information for conservation projects, conservation groups did seize the opportunity of the preparatory workshops to raise a number of challenges they are facing when looking to implement information collection and analysis systems on their projects. A few of the challenges mentioned were:

  • Affordability
  • Long term accessibility to infrastructure as well as data storage and analysis services e.g. cloud platforms
  • Open or facilitated access to large datasets needed to develop machine learning applications
  • The need for education and training to build capacity around the tools
  • Fitness for purpose of tools as companies offer services or products which were not designed for and are not adapted to the conservation issue at hand.

I want to highlight the last two, ‘job training’ and ‘fitness for purpose’, which have also been recurring themes in my research. In high level discussions, the amount of manpower and continuous on the job training it takes to keep these technologies running, let alone act on the insights they provide, are often underestimated. In the end, it is the human side of technology implementation that is often the sticking point, and more consideration should be given to it if innovative tools are going to be of help to conservation projects. This point is also valid for the collaboration, building and design stages. At the events I attended, little was heard from on-the-ground users of such applications and experts from the biodiversity-rich developing countries that were being discussed. If technology for conservation is to be adequate and user-friendly, why not directly involve end users in the conversation from the onset?

“Big Data, Small Satellites, New Partnerships! How the wildtech sector can support the fight against IWT” panel on 12th October 2018